...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead seems to be one of only a handful of the dozens of Austin-based bands to regularly make the three-hour trip to Houston to play shows. This Friday night show at Walter’s on Washington was their third stop in town in the past year. Their new album, The Century of Self, had dropped a mere three days before this concert and this was the beginning of two month’s worth of headlining dates. Oddly, though, Walter’s is the smallest of the three venues they’ve played here in the last 12 months.
Not surprisingly, the place was packed by the time I arrived, midway through second opener Funeral Party’s set. Walter’s on Washington is a dive, a small bar that can hold maybe 250-300 people, tops. And despite having air-conditioning and six well-placed fans, the place becomes a sweatbox when the weather gets humid or warm. This makes it nearly intolerable as a venue for a good eight months out of the year in Houston. Fortunately, it was a cool February night outside, which made the conditions inside decent despite the packed house.
Funeral Party’s set was a collection of upbeat dance-pop and hard-charging indie rock. Lead singer Chad Elliot put out a ton of energy and used the small space he had to maximum potential. His performance was almost over the top as he did things like getting down on his knees, shouting into the mic. But he seemed sincere about it, almost like it wasn’t a planned gesture. It’s tough to pull off theatrical moves like that and make it seem genuine. It helped that the rest of the band rode deep grooves and sturdy riffs, and that the four or five songs I saw them perform were all quite good. The rest of the crowd liked them, too, giving them a big cheer at the end of their set.
...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead arrived onstage to raucous applause from the audience. The band’s current six-piece lineup features full-time drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards, while co-founders Conrad Keely and Jason Reece play various instruments throughout each show. Some interesting notes about Trail of Dead’s stage presence on this night: The band seems to have an unofficial “we wear black onstage” uniform policy, which drummer Aaron Ford seemed to be completely ignoring with a red plaid western-style button-down shirt. It kind of ruined the concept. Also, relative newcomers Ford and bassist Jay Leo Phillips had a lot of energy and seem to be having fun, a nice complement to Keely and Reece’s bombastic stage personas. Which leaves guitarist and co-founder Kevin Allen as the odd man out. He stood stock still in his spot at stage left all night, barely moving anything beyond his fingers on the guitar. It’s disconcerting to see four guys (keyboardist Clay Morris is stuck behind, well, keyboards, all night and can’t do much) rocking out while one guy just stands there looking bored. The only time Allen’s expression changed all night was when Reece made a terrible pun in his between-song banter—it actually got him to smile!
The set started with new material. The band opened with the first three tracks from The Century of Self, the majestic instrumental “The Giants Causeway”, the hard-rocking “Far Pavilions”, and the proggy “Isis Unveiled”, which the band was playing live for the first time. The chanting section in the middle of that song featured what looked like the entire lineup of first band Midnight Masses guesting on vocals. Despite the added energy, this song sounded sloppy and a bit unfocused. Clearly this is a piece that will need some road testing before it’s top-notch. Somewhat surprisingly, the band had finished with The Century of Self by the fifth song in the set, “Bells of Creation”, which got a bit more audience recognition, probably due to its inclusion on last fall’s Festival Thyme EP.
The rest of the set focused mainly on songs from the band’s brilliant Source Tags and Codes and their first two albums. Seeing as I don’t own the band’s first two albums, I was a little lost, particularly during the encore. If nothing else, it convinced me that if I go see Trail of Dead again, I will need to rectify that, because they certainly aren’t shy about playing their earlier stuff. At least not in Houston. It was also telling that the only song to make the show from the much maligned Worlds Apart and So Divided albums was “Will You Smile Again?”, probably the best live song in their arsenal. Trail of Dead has always gotten a lot of mileage from the loud-quiet-buildup-loud style of songwriting, but this song has so much punch at the beginning, and its quick drop-off and slow, stomping crescendo works even better live than on record. Source Tags songs included strong performances of “Another Morning Stoner” and “Relative Ways” and the punky, Reece-sung “Homage”. But the set’s other real highlight was “Days of Being Wild”, with its shout-along chorus and pounding drums.
Overall, Trail of Dead know how to put on a good show. And their sextet setup allows them to have a fuller sound, good for the newer material. It’s also a kick whenever Reece puts down the guitar and moves over to the second drumset to play along with Ford. The band’s more hard-edged, noisy material sounds great with two drummers. I did have one major issue with the set, though. All told, from the beginning to the end of the encore, it lasted a scant 70 minutes. A band that’s just released their sixth album should be able to give their fans 90-100 solid minutes at this point in their career. It’s been seven years and three albums since Source Tags made them an indie buzz band, and the hipsters have long since abandoned Trail of Dead. The folks that are still coming out to their shows are real fans, and they deserve more than an hour-long concert.